Cambridge University in the 1930s nurtured a notorious ring of spies for the Soviet Union. But it also produced another group, which revolutionised medicine. Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross passed secrets to the KGB until the mid-1950s. The treachery of the Cambridge Five then triggered decades of intense attention in the press, novels and films.
In contrast, the collective achievement of what we might call the Cambridge Three – an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman – is hardly known to the wider public.
Charles Fletcher, John Crofton and Archie Cochrane came from well-off, privileged backgrounds. No great surprise that they were all men. Cambridge had struggled hard to come to terms with the 20th century, only awarding degrees to women in 1948. The trio enjoyed student life. Fletcher liked amateur dramatics, won a rowing blue and, coincidentally, was a friend of both Blunt and Burgess. Crofton had lofty ambitions with the climbing club and scaled the heights in the Cairngorms where a difficult ascent still bears his name.
At that time, Cambridge students usually gained their clinical training in London. All three were seared by the desperate poverty they witnessed there. It was this which shaped their political outlooks in a decade dominated by the rise in fascism and civil war in Spain.
Cochrane, then studying at Guy's, joined the International Brigade as a medical orderly, where he suffered any clinician's worst nightmare admitting a wounded Julian Bell, the poet and close pal from their student days, knowing that he was certainly going to die. On leave in Madrid, Cochrane met Ernest Hemingway whom he found 'an alcoholic bore' and in a Barcelona bar he had a long argument with a tall Englishman over the failures of in the Aragon offensive. That was Eric Blair aka George Orwell.
The horrors of the Second World War proved another life-defining experience for Crofton and Cochrane in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Cochrane was captured and in one of the prison camps conducted what he described as his first randomised controlled trial.
Fletcher's diabetes ruled him out for active service but as a junior doctor in Oxford he became the first physician doctor to administer an injection of penicillin.
Peace brought relief. All three were enthusiasts for the National Health Service in 1948, which brought job security and regular pay for junior doctors, but their interests had shifted to academic medicine with the Medical Research Council (MRC). Fletcher moved to South Wales to take charge of the new MRC Pneumoconiosis Unit at Llandough Hospital and hired Cochrane. They were unlikely figures – the son of the secretary of the MRC and a well-heeled Scotsman from Galashiels with a luxury car. But the old Etonian and the wee Jock with the big Jag got on well with the mineworkers they came to study and help. Cochrane's epidemiological studies made the people of the Rhondda Fach the world's most medically studied population.
Fletcher returned to London to take over the post vacated by Dublin-born Crofton on his elevation to the chair of tuberculosis at Edinburgh, where his knowledge gained in the MRC trials of streptomycin proved invaluable.
Faced by the rising tuberculosis epidemic of 1954, Crofton's group adopted an innovative approach for treating tuberculosis, using all three drugs from the outset. For the first time, tuberculosis was eminently curable, and the principles established for combination chemotherapy were later applied to treatment of cancer, HIV and other conditions.
By this time, the first three Cambridge spies had been exposed and randomised controlled trials by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill were establishing a clear link between smoking and lung cancer. Curiously, the approach by government to both issues was to bury its head in the sand and ignore them, partly because Cambridge was a key pillar of the British establishment. It was not until 1979 that Anthony Blunt was publicly named as a spy.
There was resistance from successive governments addicted to the huge tax yields from cigarettes and it was only from 2006 that the home nations introduced bans on smoking in public places. Crofton and Fletcher were founding members of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). Fletcher widened the focus producing the first of several reports by the Royal College of Physicians on smoking. By this time, he was a familiar face as Britain's first television doctor, hosting Your Life in Their Hands
Fletcher enjoyed the buzz of live broadcasting and said it enabled him to act as the kind of doctor he would like to be. His appearances annoyed many traditionalists horrified that medicine was being demystified. One of my boyhood memories is seeing him demonstrate his insulin injections on screen.
All were sociable and engaged with a wide circle of friends. They were also vulnerable – Crofton and Fletcher both suffered bouts of clinical depression. Cochrane, now remembered in the international collaboration assessing clinical trials which bears his name, was haunted by nightmares from the prison camps.
At this time of year, in Cambridge the focus turns on the nine lessons and carols from King's. Some might recall the exploits of the Cambridge Five but a much worthier seasonal toast, on medical advice, might be to the unsung Cambridge Three.
Chris Holme is a former Reuters Foundation fellow in medical journalism